From bookshops to department stores, there is no retail business that has been spared the effects of the Amazon era, but it’s been acutely felt by the furniture industry.

“Furniture stores are expensive operations,” says Lynsey Humphrey, the Park City, Utah–based founder and CEO of Design Kollective, a platform geared toward brick-and-mortar design retailers. “Furniture is heavy, it’s bulky, it’s very hard to deal with. It’s a labor of love.”

Before launching her current company, Humphrey ran a residential interior design and wholesale furniture brand called Alder and Tweed with her siblings, where she experienced firsthand how local shops struggled to successfully manage a digital presence. “Many brick-and-mortar furniture stores did not get online, because they were too busy, not very tech-savvy, and didn’t have the money after they were done remerchandising their floor or investing in their inventory,” she says.

Enter Design Kollective, which aims to give physical furniture stores a fighting chance against digital home shopping destinations like Houzz, Wayfair and Perigold. Design Kollective provides retailers with a full-service solution to having an online operation, complete with a shoppable marketplace, marketing tools and a white glove shipping solution.

Think of Design Kollective as the Etsy for furniture stores: By aggregating small shops, they can create a global, well-recognized, high-trafficked platform where the products are front and center. “I think that if we can band them all together, brick-and-mortar stores are larger than the e-tailers,” says Humphrey. “As an aggregate, we have more of the market share, and we can be a force to be reckoned with.”

Humphrey lets BOH in on the details that drive Design Kollective, her big-picture brand vision, and everything new users need to know about the platform.

How did your experience with Alder and Tweed lead to the idea for Design Kollective?
Alder and Tweed launched with a small chain of retail stores in 2008, the worst time to start any sort of business. Operating a retail store during the recession taught me a lot about furniture and the challenges that you face when running a storefront.

As Alder and Tweed evolved, and we started catering to brick-and-mortar from the wholesale side—we sell to more than 4,000 retailers—we found that we started to get a collective voice, and all of the complaints from retailers we worked with were the same: We don’t know how to get online.

And if you’re not online, you don’t exist. I decided to lead the charge on finding a very simple way to get all of them online, and stay online, at a very minimal cost. Because they couldn’t afford to just launch a second business, which is what it is.

It seems like this was a concern you had about the industry for a long time. What led you to launch Design Kollective in 2016?
Every year, we’d have a board meeting and say, “Is this the year we should do this, or is somebody else taking care of the problem?” We saw it as a problem to solve for us all to survive. So one year we just decided it’s now or never.

What you’ve built is somewhere between an e-commerce platform and a content management system. What tools do you provide for retailers?
We are a niche business that only works with brick-and-mortar stores, and our suite of tools is targeted to their individual needs. We have a team that manages it all for them, so the minute they sign up, we take over a part of the business that they have to have but don’t have time for.

The first solution we provided was an easy way for stores to get their inventory online. If you’re not online with inventory, you’re like a restaurant without a menu. Our inventory team can get their products up swiftly and efficiently, and easily add new items. For one-of-a-kind pieces, retailers can simply snap a photo and send it to the team. If a store had inventory online, but not a shopping cart, we have a shopping cart that’s tied directly to their business. When someone checks out, the money goes to the storefront.

We also created store pages that are as simple to update as a Facebook page. If a retailer wants to put up a new photo of their store or highlight a recent project, they can drag and drop it into the template. They can showcase their portfolios if they have a design business, and they can blog straight from their page. We also automate emails to their customer base. It’s so easy, sometimes they forget that they’re on it.

How do you handle shipping?
We’re able to provide all of our stores with a white glove shipping service through a partnership with online shipping platform uShip. We created a program that automates the rates so the cost of shipping is included in the price of the product if a store decides to opt in.

What does it cost to be on Design Kollective?
It’s just $149 a month. We’re really proud of that! We built this for the retailer, so bringing costs down was super important. And the more retailers we have on the platform, the more we can bring the cost down.

What are the requirements for a brick-and-mortar retail store to join?
The only qualifications are that you have an actual, physical retail store, and you have a presence in your community. There are a lot of stores that sell appliances or mattresses, and we’re not that. We seek out stores that have as much of a passion for furniture—and saving local brick-and-mortar—as we do.

Right now, you’re in a growth phase and looking to get more stores signed up on the platform. What is that outreach like? What are your goals?
The platform is robust, and we’ve built out every tool that stores could possibly need. It has grown pretty organically, and we have 111 stores across the United States, but we want to be in every community.

How is Design Kollective a resource for the interior design trade?
We created a section of our website for designers called Sidedoor. When a designer makes an account, they input their trade details, so when they log in, they can see every store’s individual trade discounts and what’s available in their area.

A lot of designers get in a pinch at the end of their project or find that a piece is out of stock, then they have to re-spec it and approve it with the client. Design Kollective allows them to see what local retailers have on the floor, and they can buy it immediately, and have it within a week. We have a direct messaging system where designers can chat directly with stores.

Design Kollective is privately funded through Alder and Tweed, which provides a sense of financial security to these stores.
We decided to privately fund it from the beginning because of exactly that. We knew that we were solving a problem that also helped us, because the manufacturing arm of our business depends on brick-and-mortar stores—90 percent of our customers are brick-and-mortar.

This is mutually beneficial. We didn’t really look at it with the mindset of ‘How much can we make off of this?’ We knew that it was going to cost, and we’re OK with that, because it was an investment into the industry’s future. We’re at the point where it’s pretty self-sufficient.

Where do you see Design Kollective in five years?
However Pollyannaish this may seem, I see every really great shop on Design Kollective, and I see people shopping local. We’ve catered to the consumer and the way that they shop, and we’ve gotten every brick-and-mortar to stay in business, because brick-and-mortar is the most meaningful way to shop for furniture.

Header image: Manhattan Beach, California–based retail store Dacha has used the Design Kollective platform for nearly two years. | Courtesy of Design Kollective

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